Tag Archives: prostitutes

The end of legal prostitution in Japan; the last Mizoguchi film

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Akasen chitai” ” (Street of Shame, 1956) was the last film directed by Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956), director of Ugetsu and Sanchô, the Bailiff, two masterpieces set in distant times that were among the first dozen Japanese films I ever saw. They convinced me that Mizoguchi was a master, though I now realize that his other films are nowhere near as great as those two, and have come to appreciate work of some other Japanese directors more (Ichikawa, Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Shinoda ; Kurosawa has retained his position at the top of my pantheon).

I find Mizoguchi’s wartime two-part adaptation of “The 47 Ronin” unbearably slow and visually static. I found his 1936 “Sisters Of The Gion” (included in the four-disc Criterion Eclipse “Mizoguchi Fallen Women release) slow, grim, and bordering on hysteria. (OK, I find the conduct in a lot of Japanese films extreme, including a Kurosawa movie I recently saw for the first time, “I Live in Fear.”)

“The Life of Oharu” (1952) is hard for me to take. The title character is the daughter of a (17th-century) samurai who had been a lady-in-waiting in court, but fell and fell and fell some more. Or was ground down by being forced into prostitution and eventually attracting no customers.

In “Street of Shame” two of the prostitutes in the then-contemporary (1956) house of prostitution called “Dreamland” in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara (red-light) district also strike me as well past their sell date. Especially, given the brutal competition, with prostitutes grabbing men walking down the street and dragging them in, it surprises me that these women — two of whom look to me to be pushing 50, and a couple of whom are far from beautiful — are making a living.

With Parliament debating outlawing prostitution (which in the real world it did shortly after “Street of Shame” was released), their situation is increasingly perilous. There are definitely tearjerker elements to the movie, but most of the Dreamland “girls” need to keep working. Hanae (Michiko Kogure) is supporting her sick, unemployed husband and an infant. The aging Yorie (Hiroko Machida) goes off to marry a man who wants a servant who he does not have to pay. She comes crawling back.

An even more unhappy story is that of Yumeko (Aiko Mimasu), a war widow who turned to prostitution to provide her parents funds to raise her son, who rejects her with contempt at a time she is hoping to retire and live with him.

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Not all the Dreamland “girls” are ground down in the manner of Oharu. Yasumi (Ayako Wakao) wheedles a besotted suitor into embezzling money to marry her, and just keeps the money and opens a futon shop (with Dreamland being one of her customers).

Mickey (Machiko Kyô, star of Rashômon, Ugetsu, Face of Another) dresses in western style, unlike the other “girls,” and is notably brash. When her father arrives to take her home, a tsunami of bitterness about his treatment of his wife explodes. Mickey does not have the shame of Yumeko or the skills at building up a store of working capital of Yasumi, and refuses to consider herself a victim. Her work provides her money to buy what she wants and to spite her father.

I don’t see that the movie would have encouraged outlawing prostitution, but am well aware that I am not Japanese and that I do not see and understand Japanese movies in the same way as Japanese do. (And Japanese are only too happy to maintain that non-Japanese cannot understand Japanese (the language) or the Japanese (worldview).)

I did not come out from having watched “Street of Shame” feeling battered, as I did from watching “Life of Oharu,” or exhilarated, as I did from Watching “Sanchô, the Bailiff” (either in my youth or more recently), nor was I bored as I was by Mizoguchi’s version of “The 47 Ronin.” I thought the camera placement very static: as in Ozu movies, it seems always at the eye-level of someone kneeling, but there was a lot of cutting back and forth between interlocutors so that the film did not seem visually static. But the fluid camerawork of the great Mizoguchi films of the 1950s was foresworn. And the screenplay is the first in decades not authored by Yoda Yoshikita.

There were entertaining moments, not all of them ironic ones, and a range of characters. Mizoguchi’s last journey into showing women employed to please men neither romanticizes nor demonizes “the oldest profession” or even the owner of Dreamland, who has a mortgage to pay.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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Mizoguchi’s “Women of the Night”

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Though only running 73 minutes, I thought that Mizoguchi Kenji’s 1948 movie “Women of the Night” (Yoru no onnatachi) interminable. Also contrived, increasingly overwrought (dare I say “hysterical”?), increasingly preachy, way melodramatic, with an intact stained-glass window of the Virgin Mary in a bombed-out church as the scene for the witches’ (prostitutes) cabal. As usual, the women are treated badly, not only by men who exploit them, but by female prostitutes who drag newcomers or those trying to break away back, like crabs in a basket.

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It was the only Japanese movie from the immediately postwar years that I’ve seen that showed rubble along with broken lives, though it looked to me that the movie was shot in a studio. Kinoshita’s prosperous family and patriarch seem an altogether different world only a year later. (Much later (1983), Kinoshita shot studio rubble for “The Children of Nagasaki.”)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Suzuki’s “Gate of Flesh”

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After seeing “Koroshi no rakuin” (Branded to Kill, 1967), Hori Kyusaku, the head of the Nikkatsu studio, fired long-time (and contracted) Nikkatsu director Suzuki Seijun, saying that his movies did not make sense and did not make money. One that had make money in Japan (I’d guess because of its sadomasochism and partial nudity) though not making a lot of sense, a few years earlier, was “Nikutai no mon” (Gate of Flesh, 1964).

In bombed-out, burned-out, US-occupied Tokyo just after the defeat in the Second World War, five prostitutes live in a cavernous studio space. The prime house rule is: “Never give it away,” that is, never have sex without payment. A violator of the rule is stripped, hung up like slaughterhouse meat, and caned early in the movie. She is replaced by a good girl, Maya (Nogawa Yumika in her screen debut; she would also play the lead in Suzuki’s “Story of a Prostitite” the next year). Maya is seemingly a virgin, devastated by the loss of her brother in Borneo) who is clad in green (the others wear red, yellow, and magenta with one in a black kimono; some have tried to read meaning into the colors, but in the DVD bonus interview, Suzuki and his designer/art director Kimura Takeo independently say that they were just seeking to make the different characters look different).

Along with the tough and tender prostitutes, there is a criminal tough guy. Nikkatsu often assigned the chipmunk-cheeked* Joe Shishido to Suzuki. Shishido plays Ibuki Shintaro (“Shin” for short), who was a corporal in the army and now is a thief. The rest of his gang is killed in robbing penicillin from the invaders. I white-suited, black-shirted yakuza (gangster) who works closely with the Americans seeks to buy the stuff. Shintaro seems more a lone wolf than a cog in the organized crime wheel.

The Americans want Shin for fatally stabbing a GI. The prostitute in red, Sen (Kasai Satoko) brings him “home” with her to recuperate. All the “girls” buy canned pineapple for him and he plays the part of a rooster in a henhouse (or a fox…). He also brings home the bacon, well a whole cow rather than a pig, leads it down the open stairs and slaughters it in a considerable pool of blood.

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As surrealistic as the goings on are in Suzuki/Kimura movies, most veteran filmgoers can predict how things will end for the characters from the setup I’ve described. Not that the continuity one expects from most movies is provided along the way. The stories Suzuki was given to tell are not very interesting and/or he had little interest in telling stories except as a pretext for juxtaposing oddly framed images. Suzuki says that the studio just wanted a film with half-naked girls getting tied up and beaten. I doubt they were disappointed, especially since the movie made money.

One surprise is that after merciless canings or whippings, the “girls” recuperate amazingly rapidly and have no scars. Shin’s rehabilitation is slower… Another is that this gang of prostitutes will not take on American customers, though we see that there are crowds of others seeking them out.

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The movie is luridly shot, not just in the strong colors that the prostitutes wear. (Take the Christian church in the background of one sex scene for another example.) There are jarring jump cuts seemingly for the sake of jarring, including some cuts to a US flag. (At the time when leasing military bases to the US was a very controversial subject in Japan, Suzuki was avowedly anti-American; paradoxically, he spoke enough English then to direct American actors in the movie; now that his anti-Americanism has faded, his English has fallen away.) But like Imamura’s films about prostitutes and American occupation of Japan, Suzuki was very critical of Japanese conduct. The girls blame the men (Shin being the one in residence) for having lost the war.

In the bonus material interview, Suzuki does not say he was trying to remind Japanese of their abasement in the years just after the war. He also disclaims aesthetic intent, contending he was just trying to make an effective movie out of the screenplay he was ordered to make with Shishido.

A theatrical trailer is also included.

 

* Joe Shishido had plastic surgery to increase his pronouncedly swollen cheeks, so I am not making rude fun of someone’s natural defects.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Slow and bloody movie about Tokugawa decadence: “Rônin-gai” (1990)

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The 1990 “Rônin-gai,” directed by Kuroki Kazuo (Ash-ita), reinforced my opinion that the golden age of rônin films was the 1960s, when Mifune Toshirô and Nakadai Tatsuya were in their prime, starring in unglamorizing films directed by Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), Okamoto Kihachi (Kill!, Sword of Doom, Samurai Assassin), Shinoda Masahiro (Samurai Spy), and Kobayashi Masaki (Hara-kiri, Samurai Rebellion) set in the 19th century, in the declining days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) after centuries of peace had rusted Japan’s hereditary warriors caste (the samurai) and its honor code (the tao of the sword).

What “Rônin-gai” added was what looks like a strand from Mizoguchi’s many movies about the hard lot of prostitutes, such as “The Life of Oharu”)… or from slasher movies. Through most of the movie the swordsmanship on display is slicing up prostitutes (“social cleansing” by a group of samurais working for the Tokugawa shogun).

The local rônin (unemployed samurai) mostly drink at a tavern/bordello along a stream, some distance from Edo (now Tokyo) in 1836. At the outset of the movie, a particularly dissolute one named Gennai (Harada Yoshio) has returned to resume a relationship with the most high-priced of the prostitutes, Oshin (Higuchi Kanaka). Another rônin, Gonbei (Ishabashi Renji), longs for her, and a third, “Bull” (Katsu Shintaro), has appointed himself bouncer and protector of the prostitutes, including Oshin. Nearby, dealing in caged birds (and smelling of guano) is another rônin, Doi. I thought the woman who lives with him and nags him must be his wife, but I guess is his sister. She and Oshin set a trap for the murderer, but did not consider that instead of one psychotic there was a whole army. (The viewer knows this early on, so mentioning it is not plot-spoiling.)

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Plot spoiler alert

“Bull” sells himself as an amusement to the shogunate samurai, but is unwilling to aid in their “social cleansing” of those he had been protecting (the prostitutes).

Eventually (as in the Kobayashi rônin movies), there is a long battle scene. Gennai is, as usual, weaving from excess drink, but is the first champion on the scene, slaughtering attackers as he staggers about. Gombei takes time to change clothes (immaculate white that is soon bloodstained) before joining the battle. Doi suits up in the armor he was considering selling and charges into the fray on horseback.

End of plot spoiler alert

A lot of blood is spilled, including sadistic murders of unarmed women. The proto-fascist samurais are the villains. Oshin is the closest thing to a hero, though the rônin eventually remember their code of honor as samurai in somewhat comical ways.

The long stretch of setting up the battle lacks the tension of “Harakiri” (and the charisma of Nakadai!). None of the characters is very likable (the women are not unlikable, but are not individuated, other than Oshin having more initiative). For a character-driven movie, more interested characters are necessary. For a plot-driven movie, more action is needed. As it is, Harada’s wild hair is often more interesting than what the characters are doing.

The cinematography of Takawai Hitoshi seems muddy to me. The music of Mastsumura Teizo (who also scored “Tomrrow” for Kuroki) annoys more than it serves the story.

It seems to me that the jidai-geki movie in Japan was in the same parlorous state as the American western by 1990 (but has been revitalized in the new millennium with the masterful “Twilight Samurai” and others.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray